Design Talk: An iterative process

Hey everyone! Nitro here.

Game development is an iterative process. As ideas get explored and features implemented, they are refined, remixed, replaced, or even completely discarded. Like the Ship of Theseus, the change is continuous enough that it can be hard to distinguish when one iteration of the game’s design ends and another begins.

While different in its implementation, the current design for The Time I Have Left retains most of what we originally envisioned: A game built upon exploration, narrative, time limits, and accessible gameplay.

In this article, I’ll cover some of the original ideas and how they grew into their current form through iterative development.


A time-driven affair

The Time I Have Left (© Ground Game Atelier, 2023)

The timer was a much more punishing mechanic in the first iteration of our design. Time would start the moment you begin the adventure and would not stop until you beat the game, pausing and loading saved games notwithstanding. The six hours Aline had left to live would happen in more or less real-time, not even slowing down when you were checking out the menu!

There were downsides to this approach: Levels would need to account for the varying amount of time remaining you could enter them with, and mistakes early on could have consequences later on. To make matters worse, it detracted from one of the core themes of our game, which is to make the most of your time. This design encouraged rushing through levels as fast as possible to have more time available for future stages. It was anathema to our intentions, so we had to rework things.

To fix this, we made it so each level has a unique time limit, and your remaining time is discarded after you finish the stage. If you finish the level with half an hour to spare, that half an hour will be lost! This encourages players to go back and explore some more, to think about what they would like to do with the time they have left.

Additionally, we decided to slow down or even stop the timer in certain circumstances to encourage immersing yourself in the story. This way, you can read story entries without fearing the pressure of the clock.


An escape adventure

Originally, there were several ways to escape Colony 7 and each route would take you through different sets of areas, similar to how paths branch and combine in OutRun. While the genres and overall experience greatly differs, the core concept has plenty of overlap: A race against time through a heavily branching path.

OutRun (© Sega, 1986)

This approach required a great amount of work, resulting in zones being smaller than we wanted, and making it likely that most players would never see much of what The Time I Have Left has to offer. It also made balancing the experience much more difficult, so in the end we decided to condense the multiple escape routes into a single adventure.

The current, more straightforward design lets us tune the experience much better: We can focus on making each level have a different feel or focus on different gameplay aspects, thus ensuring the experience never feels stale or repetitive!

There are still lots of secret areas, but they are now contained within larger stages instead of being smaller levels locked behind secret alternative routes.


A near-death experience

The Time I Have Left (© Ground Game Atelier, 2023)

We planned to make the experience evocative of RPG s whilst maintaining the focus on narrative and adventure. To that end, we put in small, simple action sequences, somewhat reminiscent of random encounters. These were meant to break up the pacing, add gameplay variety, and expand on the narrative.

Our first approach didn’t quite have the desired effect but it was nevertheless positively received. With each iteration, we slowly converged towards a more or less full-fledged combat system.

The core concept remains the same: Aline is defenseless in a strange, otherworldly place, and her only option is to endure an onslaught of threats until she wakes up. While the original implementation was closer to a QTE in spirit, our current iteration is closer to a traditional turn-based RPG with an active twist.

During the enemy turn, the player has to properly read what action the enemy is performing, and the player is tasked with evading those attacks. Good timing is rewarded with extra resources to use during your turn. Over time, we leaned further into these nascent RPG mechanics, adding skills for the player to unlock, a rating system that grants XP points for good performance, and more.


While the ideas we left behind were interesting, iterating and being open to change helped us to find the fun in The Time I Have Left , and we are looking forward to seeing what you all think of the final product once it’s ready!

Of course, things in the cutting room floor are never truly lost: Sometimes, previously discarded concepts return when the environment is right for them, be it this game or the next.

I hope this article has given you an insight into how games change while in development. As per usual, I cordially invite you all to join our Discord server or drop a question below if you have any questions!

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